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Watson v. Geren

April 10, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gershon, United States District Judge


Petitioner Timothy D. Watson, a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, Individual Ready Reserve ("IRR"), applies to this court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, challenging his custody by the U.S. Army. Specifically, petitioner challenges the Army's denial of his application for discharge as a conscientious objector. For the reasons set forth below, petitioner's application for a writ of habeas corpus is granted.


In June 1998, while attending medical school, petitioner applied to the Army for financial assistance under the U.S. Army Health Professions Scholarship Program ("HPSP"). The Army offered petitioner an HSPS scholarship in exchange for his commitment to serve one year on active duty for each year of funding received and to remain in the Army Reserve for five years thereafter. On June 30, 1998, petitioner signed a service contract with the Army incorporating those terms. At that time, he was not opposed to participating in war or serving as an Army officer. Petitioner subsequently received HPSP funds for three years, thereby obligating him to serve three years on active duty upon completion of his medical studies. Afterwards, but while still in medical school, petitioner served on active duty several times while performing clinical rotations at military medical facilities.

After graduating from medical school, petitioner entered a one year internship program in internal medicine and, afterwards, enrolled in a residency program in radiology. In 2001, the Army deferred petitioner's active duty obligation for five years so that he could complete his residency. Petitioner received no HSPS funding during that time.

On January 3, 2006, as his residency training was nearing completion, petitioner filed with the Army a 26-page application for discharge as a conscientious objector ("CO"), pursuant to and in accordance with Army Regulation 600-43. In his application, petitioner declared that he is opposed to participating in war in any form. He also addressed, in detail, the nature and evolution of his beliefs, the timing of their development, and the ways in which they have altered his lifestyle. First, petitioner outlined his opposition to participating in war:*fn2

I believe that warfare is immoral. I cannot participate in warfare or support warfare in any form. I cannot kill other human beings or assist those that do. My position stems from my moral, ethical and religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of human life, the power of non-violent resistance, and the role I have been called to play, and have chosen to play, in my journey through this precious and extraordinary life. I have given these issues profound thought over the past few years, and continue to give them profound thought, and my firm conclusion is that I cannot be a soldier. I cannot kill other human beings or assist those who do. I cannot support institutions that kill and make war. I prefer going to jail over killing or being part of an institution that kills. I prefer to die than to kill.

Furthermore, as preparation for war and the conduct of warfare are the defining principles of military service and training, I no longer consider my work as a physician congruent with active participation in any military organization. I am morally opposed to participation in military activities of any kind. My work as a physician is in direct opposition to the purpose of all armed forces and the prospect of my future employment as a physician in the Army Medical Corps is utterly incompatible with my beliefs regarding war, justice and God.

Participating in the care of injured active service members, thereby speeding their recovery and return to active military operations, results in the functional equivalent of weaponizing human beings. Because war is inherently inaccurate, collateral injuries to noncombatants are inevitable; my future participation in the Army would result in a perversion of my training and work as a doctor. In the Army, my work to heal would result, however indirectly, in the infliction of unnecessary wounds and loss of life. I cannot in good conscience justify these results, and will not voluntarily participate in them. . . . .

I am no soldier; and I am no longer a physician who will work for an institution of war.

A.R. 3 at 12-13. Petitioner then explained how his opposition to war has developed over time. Specifically, he stated that the events of September 11, 2001, and the United States' subsequent military response, served as an impetus for his changed belief system:

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 and our subsequent response in Afghanistan and Iraq have been profound catalysts for introspection, and constitute a radical turning point in my life. These ongoing events have led me to reconsider many of my views on life, God, religion, government, politics, and ultimately my role as a human being here and now on this small planet.

We live in a radically different world than we did before September 11, 2001 and our response with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I am a changed person as a result. These ongoing wars, and the mass death and deconstruction resulting from them, have led me to more fully comprehend the immorality, cruelty and arbitrariness of violence in general, and particularly the futility of violent retaliation. They have led me to detest violence and reject it completely. . . . .

A significant part of my response to these horrific events was to learn more about violence, the causes of violence, and alternatives to violence. They also caused me to search deeply within myself and to question my beliefs about life, death, warfare, violence and God.

A.R. 3 at 14. According to petitioner, his developing views against warfare began to crystallize, from late 2004 into 2005, into a firm belief that he could not participate in war in any form:

My decision began to take form in late 2004. Through a culmination of readings, meetings, discussions and other experiences, my beliefs crystallized by early Summer 2005. I knew then that I could never be a soldier, bear arms, kill other human beings, or lend my efforts and talents in support of institutions that wage war. A.R. 3 at 16.

In detailing his opposition to war, petitioner listed various sources from which his beliefs derive. He cited Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, among others, as primary influences. In addition, he pointed to various religious and philosophical tenets as having contributed to his belief in non-violence:

I was raised Lutheran. I was raised with the teachings of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, of which the defining principle is love. "This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12). This principle is also a tenet of Islam: "The source of all compassion (God) will endow with love -- His love, the love of fellow being, and a capacity to love all -- true believers who work for the common good" (Qur'an 19:16).

I whole-heartedly agree with Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said, "I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love."

For me a future in the military represents a path toward hate as well as a denial of what I now know to be true. "This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). My goal is to build a life founded on this type of universal brotherly love; I choose to walk a path of forgiveness and love. This I believe cannot be achieved through participation in any military organization. . . . .

It is my strongest desire to have a positive effect in the world and I do not know to what degree Christianity is to be a vehicle for this, but pursuing that goal while participating in any military institution for me is antithetical and morally corrupt. I believe Dr. King was absolutely correct when he said, "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, one which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals." I am a healer and no soldier, and I cannot deny which is more righteous and just to me now.

The philosophies of the East have also been sources of great inspiration. From Hinduism and Gandhi to Islam and the Chinese philosophies of Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tse, I have discovered a seemingly universal and timeless, persistent human striving for meaningful living and spiritual enlightenment. . . . .

In all of my readings, whether from the teachings of the ancient Vedic culture, the Qur'an or the philosophies of the Chinese spiritual masters, as in the more modern Christian text, strikingly absent from all these treatises on the meaning of life and how one should go about leading a good and meaningful one, is there the suggestion to solve one's problems and disagreements with others by taking up arms and slaying those that oppose you. From arguably mankind's most influential and lasting spiritual leaders and philosophers the use of violence is strikingly and consistently discredited as morally abject and spiritually void. Granted my study of the worlds great religions is relatively still in its infancy, but those leaders of men most widely admired and revered today overwhelmingly are not history's warmonger's but it's peacemakers. I choose to stand on the side of the peacemakers and will therefore not wear a military uniform ever again.

A.R. 3 at 14-15. Petitioner then indicated that his beliefs have altered his everyday life:

In addition to taking time to read the bible and research other religious texts, I have also joined and continue to participate in organizations of peace. I have marched in New York City and Washington, D.C., to stop the current war in Iraq. I have also become more politically aware and questioning. I actively seek out information from more varied sources about what is going on in my now larger world and how I might help. Where these investigations lead me and what additional decisions I reach because of them, I do not yet know. . . . .

I strive everyday to reflect on my life and daily actions. I now consciously set aside time (usually before I go to sleep, but also sometimes in the early morning and sometimes throughout the day) for this reflection. This act might be called meditation by some or prayer by others. I see it as both. It is during these moments each day that I commit myself to the goal of having all my individual deeds (in all their means and ends and in their sum total throughout my life), to the best of my own ability, be derived from and hopefully ultimately express humble, selfless love and goodwill. . . . .

[M]y family and I marched in the September 24th march on Washington D.C. to end the war organized by United for Peace and Justice, as well as Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. I continue to support and participate with both organizations as much as I can. I have also recently joined Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Nobel Prize-winning organization with a historic mission of nuclear disarmament, gun control, and environmental issues that effect the health and well being of each of us. This is a group that I plan to participate more with in the future.

My professional goals have also changed because of my beliefs. I have decided to pursue a career in oncology imaging and intervention. This represents the area of medicine where I feel I can make the largest and most meaningful contributions. There are other less psychologically and physically demanding areas of radiology, but my skills are best suited for this particularly challenging field and I intend to fulfill my responsibility to do all I can to help others. Despite the additional workload and anxiety, by fighting cancer everyday, I feel I can do the most good through my work as a physician.

A.R. 3 at 16, 18, 19-20.

Concerning his sincerity in making his application for CO status, petitioner stated the following:

I also view this application as a conspicuous act of selflessness and morally sound goodwill. I make my request for conscientious objector status, solemnly and with full understanding of the potential consequences I am opening myself up to. I understand that I may forfeit all future benefits from the Veterans Administration. I understand I will be required to remit all costs incurred by the US Army for my medical training. I understand that the relationships with my family and friends will continue to be tested the rest of my life. I understand that I may be stigmatized by society at large for the rest of my life. I understand that I may be forced to choose between being a soldier and going to prison. And I certainly understand that being a military doctor for a few years is a far easier and more practical solution to this situation.

Regardless, these consequences are outweighed by the prospect of the use of my skill and any of my effort in participation with an organization that is directly opposed to my beliefs. No matter the difficulties this decision may bring, I will not voluntarily work for the U.S. Army, nor any other branch of the United States military. Affiliating myself and my work as a physician with any institution of war is morally unacceptable to me and I refuse to do so simply to avoid personal hardships.

As an offer of good faith to serve my country and to honor the larger contract I entered into with the U.S. government in 1998, I would fulfill my active duty obligation attending to the care of medically underserved populations throughout this country as a civilian physician via the United States Department of Health and Human Services Public Health and Indian Health Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs Health System or other institutions charged with the medical care of non-active duty military, civilian U.S. citizens.

A.R. 3 at 18-19, 21. Finally, petitioner summarized his overall opposition to warfare, and emphasized that he could not participate in military service:

I can say with great accuracy and deeply held conviction that the only way I can be certain that my individual actions as a physician, American, and human being will not contribute to the additional and unnecessary loss of life and limb, American or otherwise, is by my non-participation in warfare and military service in any form. A.R. 3 at 16.

In addition to his written application, petitioner submitted ten letters of support from family members and colleagues. All ten letters reference petitioner's outstanding character and honesty. One of his colleagues, Dr. Peter Nardi, for example, wrote: "Applying for conscientious objector status is not an easy thing to do, and I know Tim has searched deep within himself before coming to this decision. As to the question of his sincerity let there be no doubt this is a quality he has plenty of." A.R. 3 at 30. Dr. Robert F. Leonardo, the director of Interventional Radiology at Long Island College Hospital, echoed Dr. Nardi's sentiments: "I also firmly believe that Tim is very sincere in his beliefs and has been very consistent in his views in the time that I have known him. Thus, I fully support his decision to apply for conscientious objector status." A.R. 3 at 31. Another colleague, Dr. Daniel Resnick, succinctly endorsed petitioner's sincerity: "I am of the strongest opinion that his current desire to relieve himself of his Military responsibility is a deep felt ethically based decision that has been undertaken with the most sincerity." A.R. 3 at 36.

The letters authored by petitioner's parents also commend their son's veracity and overall character. Though they expressed some disappointment with petitioner's beliefs and decision to seek CO status, both George and Joyann Watson ultimately stated that they believe their son's decision was made with sincerity. Mr. Watson, a 65-year old retiree who served in the United States Army Reserve for seven years, made the following comments:

I served in the United States Army Reserve from 1963-69 and am honorably discharged. I am proud of my service and loyal to my country and consider myself a patriot. . . . .

Timothy's decision has been a hard one to accept. My beliefs are not totally his and his beliefs are not totally mine, but I want him to do what he feels is right. I believe in my son's honesty and sincerity and support him in whatever he deems correct. A.R. 3 at 23. Mrs. Watson conveyed a similar message:

I'm oh so shocked, surprised, disappointed & devastatingly frightened by my sons' decision. . . . .

This freedom we all treasure is due in large part to our honored military . . . . Past, present & future ones.

I support our veterans. I proudly honor them & am saddened by each and everyone of them lost or injured by war. . . . .

I'm shocked to know my sons' objection are where they are now, after 9/11. I did not know he was marching for/or against anything in Washington, D.C. What I do know . . . . is this . . . . I do know my son is an honest, and sincerely thoughtful person. I have no doubt that his feelings about war are true. I do know my son to be a morally conscientious, scrupulous & painstakingly assiduous man in all his thoughts & actions; unremitting & persistent to always do what is right. And, when he said to me, this is my decision, there is no doubt in my mind that it is true.

A.R. 3 at 24-25.

Finally, petitioner's wife, Sharon Watson, submitted a letter in which she addressed the integrity with which petitioner made his decision to seek CO status. Additionally, Ms. Watson explained the impact that petitioner's decision has had on their family:

My family has always welcomed the addition of my husband to the family. I know that they were happy with the idea of my marrying a good man, a future doctor nonetheless, but they also admired Timothy's position as a future military officer. My father is a proud Korean War veteran, who has fond memories and stories of his service in the Army. My father's brother served in Vietnam and my father's uncle is Eugene Carroll -- former rear admiral to the Navy (retired, now deceased). Predictably, the topic of Timothy's commitment to the Army invariable comes up when we get together with my father and it is undeniable the excitement and pride that my father has had in regards to our family's military service. Needless to say, Timothy's decision has not been looked on favorably by our family.

I know my husband regrets the tremendous moral conflict he is now confronted with, as we both had previously looked upon his military obligation with much excitement and pride. I also know that his conviction is strong, sincere and deeply held, despite the unease this decision has meant for our interactions with our families and the potential for future complications it may mean for me and our son. I understand and support his decision.

Timothy, I can assure you, did not reach the decision to apply for discharge as a conscientious objector quickly or lightly, but approached it like every other important decision in his life, with rigorous caution and careful, objective study.

A.R. 3 at 26.

In addition to addressing petitioner's veracity, the letters also detail the nature of petitioner's objection to war. Four of petitioner's colleagues specifically referred to his objection to war in any form, noting that petitioner has a "firm objection to participation in war," that "[h]is participation in warfare would be contrary to all moral beliefs he has expressed," that any "military involvement would create [for him] a true moral and ethical struggle," and that he has "increasingly argued passionately against . . . the futility of war." A.R. 3 at 33, 40, 31, 28 (letters from Dr. Christopher Coppa, Mr. Joseph Columbo, Dr. Robert F. Leonardo, Dr. Ira L. Reznik). Mr. Joseph Columbo put the matter most succinctly: "He has clearly and constantly expressed deeply held moral beliefs against all war." A.R. 3 at 40. Sharon Watson, petitioner's wife, provided a similar statement, indicating that she has "witness[ed] the development of [petitioner's] beliefs against war and killing over the past few years." A.R. 3 at 27.

After petitioner's application was filed, the Army, on July 6, 2006, appointed Colonel Clinton R. O'Neill, III, to investigate and make a recommendation regarding petitioner's request for CO status. As required by AR 600-43, petitioner was then interviewed by a physician and a chaplain, both Army officers.*fn3 Petitioner was found fully capable of participating in the CO process by the physician on July 6, 2006. The chaplain's report, dated July 11, 2006, was unsupportive of ...

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